Monday, during a private mass with victims of clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis scolded Catholic bishops for their failure to act and protect children from predatory priests, stating their negligence led to greater suffering and warned they will be held accountable for their actions. This has been the strongest acknowledgment to date from the Vatican about the sex abuse crisis in the Church. According to a Vatican statement, Francis referred to priests who abuse children as a “sacrilegious cult”.
Monday's meeting between Francis and the victims involved three men and three women from Britain, Ireland and Germany. They met with the Pontiff for about 30 minutes in his residence at Casa Santa Marca. The Irish Times reports victim, Marie Kane, 43, of Ireland, told the Pope that “cover-ups are still happening and you have the power to make these changes.” She went on to ask Francis to remove Cardinal Sean Brady due to his handling of an Irish abuse inquiry in 1975. Peter Saunders, one the victims who met with Pope Francis, described his encounter in an interview with the Boston Globe, that conversation can be found here.
In the past there has been a reluctance by Vatican officials to take action against bishops accused of concealing clerical sexual abuse. Many Catholics in the U.S. were outraged when Boston Archbishop Bernard Law was given a prestigious post at a basilica in Rome by Pope John Paul II instead of being demoted when accused of shielding abusive priests during his tenure. Pope Francis has called for zero tolerance of sexual abuse by priests. A Vatican tribunal defrocked Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski last week after finding him guilty of sexual abuse of minors.
The Pontiff described the suffering caused by “men of God” despicable. Pope Francis begged for forgiveness during the homily he delivered at a Mass with the victims, saying, “Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you, and I humbly ask forgiveness.”
Continuing he said, “This is what causes me distress and pain at the fact that some priests and bishops, by sexually abusing minors, violated their innocence and their own priestly vocation,” he said. “It is something more than despicable actions. It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly chrism in order to be brought to God. And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence. They profane the very image of God in whose likeness we were created.”
A German spokesman for survivors, Norbert Denef, told the Associated Press he felt the meeting was “nothing more than a PR event.” Father Francisco Lombardi, who participated in the occasion, disagreed. He said to the Pope this was not a public relations event. He described the encounter as a very profound, spiritual meeting with “a pastor, a father, who is trying to understand deeply what happened." He defined the day as “very intense and moving.”
All eyes will now be on the Pope and the Vatican to see if they follow through on the promise to discipline the religious superiors who have enabled child sexual abuse through their negligence or deliberate cover-up. Victims are looking for Francis to take decisive action now and remove clerics who commit or conceal these heinous crimes. Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccountability.org, said in a statement, "Now Pope Francis must internalize and personalize his point about Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse."
Francis acknowledged the abuse by priests had profound consequences on the victims saying, "Many of those who have suffered in this way have also sought relief in the path of addiction…Suffering in families has been especially grave." He continued, "Some have even had to deal with the terrible tragedy of the death of a loved one by suicide. The deaths of these so beloved children of God weigh upon the heart and my conscience.”
The Pope formed a new commission, the Commission for the Protection of Minors, to advise him on ways to help with the Church's sex abuse crisis. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and Commission member, was asked by Pope Francis to organize Monday’s meeting. O’Malley was also the organizer of the Church’s first ever meeting with abuse victims, which took place with Pope Benedict XVI in the United States in April 2008.